By Santanu Mishra
Health and education are two aspects that the country has been working on consistently, through private efforts as well as public-private partnerships. The government’s Mid-Day Meal Scheme is a key aspect of these efforts, moving forward through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. These programmes have consistently improved the position of children in terms of health, education and nutrition. Almost half of India’s children are undernourished, irrespective of whether the criteria are weight for age or height for age.
Although the Mid-Day Meal Scheme was launched in 1995 with the aim of universalising “primary education by increasing enrolment, retention and attendance and simultaneously impacting on nutrition of students in primary classes”, it gained traction only after the Supreme Court’s right-to-food ruling in November 2001, which mandated that all government and government-assisted primary schools had to provide cooked midday meals.
The scheme has played a critical role in facilitating the universalisation of elementary education, reflected in the increase in enrolment, attendance and retention. Although there haven’t been any large-scale studies on this aspect, micro level studies have pointed to a steady improvement in these areas. For instance, following the introduction of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme in Rajasthan in July 2002, a small study was conducted in about 63 schools in the remote district of Barmer. The study pointed to a 23% increase in the enrolment of children. What is even more interesting is the effect it has had in the rate of enrolment of girls in schools. Thanks to the introduction of the scheme, the rate of girls excluded from schooling has halved; in Barmer, there has been a 36% jump in the enrolment rates of girls. The studies that have been conducted also point to a higher attendance and retention rate, but since these aspects are difficult to measure, we cannot draw conclusive results from the data provided. Interestingly, schools are becoming more creative in the way they navigate the health and education aspects using the scheme.
Another big achievement of the scheme has been effectively eliminating “classroom hunger” in most instances. Various nutritional deficiencies found in children are also tackled through the scheme. Various micro-nutrient deficiencies (iron, iodine and Vitamin A) are also effectively tackled through the scheme. Many schools have also undertaken mass deworming strategies while implementing the program.
Sharing meals with kids from various socio-economic segments has also meant children are being taught to do away with social prejudices. Additionally, the scheme has also enabled teachers to impart knowledge and education on nutrition and personal hygiene to children, for instance teaching them to wash their hands before eating.
Room for improvement
Despite its many achievements and benefits, there is great scope to improve the scheme. For instance, it is only through the desire to improve that children are now served wholesome nutritious meals instead of a bowl of dahlia.
The introduction of the scheme had initially disrupted the normal teaching schedules in many schools. In many schools, teachers were asked to cook, and classrooms were used to cook meals since there were no kitchen spaces. In some schools, children were tasked with bringing in water for cooking purposes due to the lack of availability of drinking water around the school premises. This has left a lot of room for improvement in the implementation of the scheme. Many states have now started employing cooks and providing infrastructural support to the schools for the scheme to function smoothly.
The death through food poisoning of 23 children in a Bihar school has raised questions over the quality of the food being served and the manner in which it is made. This has created the opportunity for the involvement of technology to make more hygienic and efficient the process of food preparation and delivery. For instance, now there are centralised kitchens that prepare the food for many schools, which is then shipped to the schools in hygienic steel containers.
There is also great scope to improve on the infrastructure to support the scheme. For instance, buildings dedicated exclusively to the needs of the scheme (kitchens, storage units, disposal units). The implementation of the scheme also needs manpower. One way to satisfy this need is to involve mothers’ groups, self-help groups and other community-based institutions.
All in all, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme has made great strides to improve the health and nutrition of thousands of children across the country. Yet, there is a lot more to be done to make the scheme truly successful. Through continuous innovation and constant improvement, the program can become an effective tool to improve not only health and education but other aspects of life as well.
Santanu Mishra is co-founder of Smile Foundation
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